OCEAN CITY — In an exclusive interview on Saturday, Greg DeMarco, an Ocean City property owner since 2001 and a seven-year town employee in the parks department, said the public needs to know the reasons the city’s general employees want to unionize.
Earlier this year, the town’s general employees — essentially all those not linked to public safety — expressed to the Mayor and Council their desires to organize. Rather than vote outright on the matter, the council advised the employees to go through the petition to referendum process and to let the voters decide the issue.
The newly-formed Ocean City Employee Coalition, armed with help from the union that would be its representative, then hit the streets and far surpassed the minimum number of signatures required to place the matter on the November ballot as a referendum.
In last weekend’s interview, after reading recent advertisements from Councilman Brent Ashley and Councilman Joe Hall’s desires last week for the council to vote to oppose the referendum question, DeMarco said it’s time the citizens hear exactly why the general employees feel they need to form a union. It’s about protection, according to DeMarco, who said he is not the leader or spokesman for the coalition but is merely a rank-and-file member of the coalition.
DeMarco said “it’s a matter of trust and we don’t trust the council anymore,” referring specifically to the City Council majority, which consists of Brent Ashley, Jim Hall, Joe Hall and Margaret Pillas.
During the 45-minute interview, DeMarco, who started working with the city after moving to Ocean City from West Chester, Pa., addressed the stress the uncertain political winds of today have placed on city employees, the particulars of the petition drive and explained how exactly the effort to organize came about.
Q. There has been a lot said about why the general employees want to form a union. Some say it’s simply about “equality” and “fairness” since the police and paramedics have collective bargaining rights (the police actually have collective bargaining with binding interest arbitration), while others say it’s about former City Manager Dennis Dare’s removal or the sweeping changes to pay and benefits initiated by the council majority in January of 2011. Some contend these desires have been simmering for years, long before the council majority got the power. What’s the real story?
A. This got really started after the 2010 election, but I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t start this movement at all. There was always the talk that we wanted equality, too, but it never really amounted to anything like an organized effort. It almost happened in 2005 but [then City Manager] Dennis [Dare] calmed it down and it went away. I don’t really recall that because it was prior to me getting hired, but I was told by other employees about that situation.
Since the police and EMTs got it, there has always been a desire for the general employees to have the same rights. Plus, the then-council just gave it to the EMTs, and we are just asking for the same thing. We are not asking for what the police have — collective bargaining with binding interest arbitration. We are not asking for that.
We are asking for collective bargaining because we had a meeting with some citizens and they said they would be very much more supportive of us if we just asked for collective bargaining. So we went in that direction in a cooperative fashion.
But the rumors started after Ashley got elected in 2010 that things were going to get bad for us. People from City Hall and Public Works began contacting these unions back in December of 2010. I had no idea what was going on but then January 2011 came and all those ordinances to alter pay and benefits were introduced out of the blue. So I went to the meetings myself and that’s when I learned a lot. The other side was trying to ram it through and that’s when I got to have a lot of respect for the mayor, and [Councilmembers] Doug [Cymek], Lloyd [Martin] and Mary [Knight] who were trying to stop it.
I recall and I believe it was [Human Resources Director] Wayne Evans saying, ‘if you are serious about this, this could lead to the employees seeking unionization.’ They didn’t take that serious, but by February I was contacted by some Public Works employees and we started meeting at the Mason Lodge. That’s how it started. It started because of them, but we breathed a little after the mayor’s vetoes and we thought things might get better.
But then they took out [former City Manager] Dennis Dare and everything exploded. Talk of the hit list surfaced and everyone was concerned and paranoid. That’s when it all took on a life of its own.
These four [the council majority] are at the center of it all. They are. I want to make it clear. It’s not the mayor, it’s not Dennis Dare. It’s because of them and their actions. That’s why this is happening, no doubt about it. I hope the public understands that.
Q. So it’s about “equality” and “fairness” but it’s also about a lack of trust of the city’s elected officials?
A. Yes, that’s true. It’s always been a consideration, but the council majority breathed new life into it like never before with their actions.
Q. The council majority says none of the benefits changes they wanted back in January of 2011 were aimed at current employees. So what’s the big deal?
A. Well, the early ordinances say otherwise. They were trying to take our fifth week of vacation away from us after 20 years of service, eliminate dependent life insurance, lower ICMA match to $500 to $200 and reduce holiday. When pressure came on them, they gave us an extra holiday. I believe they intended this for existing employees all along, but only backed down after the uproar.
Listen, I don’t think I have bad benefits. Nobody’s asking for more, but I would like to keep what we have. I like working for Ocean City. It’s the safest place I have ever been and it’s a wonderful place to work. They keep attacking us and spreading fear. I don’t trust what they say. They are dishonest and mislead people.
Q. Switching gears to the petition drive, did you go out personally and collect signatures?
A. I concentrated mostly on the Caine Woods area because that’s where I live. I didn’t know how people were going to react, but 95% of the people whose houses I went to were supportive. I had one guy get real upset and I got about 140 signatures just going door-to-door. The reactions I got made me so happy, and I will tell you that majority is not well thought of. I was really pleased how people reacted.
Q. What were the citizens saying when they were signing? Were they just pro-union in general or did they speak about local current events?
A. I think they were signings because of the climate and the attacks they have made on us. Also, when you explained the police and firefighters are protected and we’re not, they understand and it garnishes a lot of sympathy. I believe the people in Caine Woods that I ran into want people to be treated fairly and they want to be treated fairly as taxpayers as well.
Q. Some opponents to this union effort alleged over the summer that people were out collecting signatures that were not employees of the city and some people had little to no perspective on current events. Why were outsiders used in this petition gathering process?
A. We went to our future advocate, the Maryland Classified Employees Association (MCEA), the people who will represent us. We asked them for help and they got us a headquarters. So they brought in people, only after we asked for help. We needed help because many employees work nights, people live far away, there were shift issues … we needed the help and we would not be able to get the signatures without their help. They have an outside company they use to help with these sorts of things and they brought them in to give us a hand.
That’s the only thing the majority can come up with. So what we asked for outside help from our future advocates?
Q. Back in April, you and Councilman Brent Ashley went back and forth quite a bit with Ashley getting frustrated with the criticism you had for the council majority. He said, “Some of this has gone far enough for me. I sit here and take the criticism … enough is enough of this crap.” At that meeting, Ashley asked you to have lunch with him. He told me recently you never have taken him up on it. Why not?
A. No, I never did because you know where he stands, and I’m not going to be able to convince him of anything. Also, he was very disrespectful to me at that April meeting and it backfired on him and then he wanted to take me to lunch.
The day after that meeting in April we were collecting signatures at the primary election at the convention center and we got over 200-some signatures that day. Brent came up and asked, “what’s it going to take to stop this? 10% raise? 5% raise? There’s no money. We have no money.’
I told him it’s not about the money, it’s about equality and fairness. We don’t want to be going through this again. We just want a contract to protect us. I just knew that’s how the lunch was going to go and from the ads he’s been putting in the paper I was right.
Q. Were you surprised to see the motion made last week to try and get the council to form an official stance against the union referendum?
A. Nothing surprises me with this council of the last two years. They all decided they were going to let the citizens vote on it. They didn’t have to, but that’s the course they decided. Then, Joe Hall decides he wants to change it and taint the system. It’s an act of desperation on his part if you ask me.
Look, I have a lot of respect for all elected officials, but what has been happening in Ocean City the last two years is not okay with most us.
Q. A passionate debate can be had on the role unions play today and the current headlines across the nation involving employee strikes play a part in that. Some people think city spending will have inevitably increase because employees are going to have higher demands — more pay, more perks, better insurance, more this and that. What can you tell the citizens who are weary of further unionization in their town?
A. All we would say is look to the police and EMTs. They have worked well with the city and they gave up shift differentials, raises and did a lot to work with the city. We will work with the city in the same way.